Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo credit: Shutterstock
“When Jacob reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”
As chronicled in Genesis 28:11-12, we can surmise the dreaming has been with us since time immemorial. Socrates looked on them as representatives of the voice of conscience. Voltaire dismissed them as random products of physical indispositions. Sigmund Freud called them “the royal road to the unconscious.
However one feels about dreams, they are an enduring source of fascination. “Dreams are true while they last,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson. “Dreams are a way for the subconscious to communicate with the conscious mind,” writes Michael J. Weiss in an article that appeared in Reader’s Digest.
Dreams, recent studies have shown, are often distorted reflections of our daily lives – not necessarily symbolic pictures of unconscious wishes, as Sigmund Freud believed, or random, nonsense images caused by brain signals.
Many sleep experts now believe our dreams are so related to our waking lives. Ask Stephen King, author of nightmare-inducing horror novels. In an interview, he told writer Naomi Epel: “Whatever’s going on in our daily lives trickles down and has some sort of influence down there (meaning dream).”
After research carried out for two decades at Washington State University, investigators concluded that dreams fall into three categories, namely: “tension dreamers,” “social dreamers,” and “reward dreamers.”
”Tension dreamers,” researchers say, were people who reflected anxiety, hostility, or frustration, hypochondriacs who could not concentrate on their work. “Social dreamers,” on the other hand, always dreamt of pleasant relationships with other people: having good times at parties, always getting the best, and always being the center of attraction. Researchers reckoned that such dreams were compensation for the people concerned who, in real life, were invariably shy and retiring.
In the third category, “reward dreamers” are those having visions of winning the lottery, getting an acting award or Oscar trophy (even a Nobel Prize), or receiving a knighthood. These people were self-confident people with dominant personalities. Their dreams simply complemented their actual living characters.
The nature of dream activity has been characterized by many clinical and laboratory studies. “These studies show that dreams are more perceptual than conceptual,” says psychiatry professor Ernest Louis Hartmann of the Tufts University School of Medicine. “Things are seen and heard rather than being subjected to thought.”
In terms of the senses, visual experience is present in almost all dreams; auditory experience in 40 to 50 percent; and touch, taste, smell, and pain in a relatively small percentage. A considerable amount of emotion is commonly present – usually a single, stark emotion such as fear, anger, or joy rather than the modulated emotions that occur in the waking state.
According to Weiss, dream emotions can help real therapists treat patients undergoing traumatic life events. In a study of 30 recently divorced adults, Dr. Rosalind Cartwright tracked their dreams over a five-month period, measuring their feelings towards their ex-spouses. She discovered that those who were angriest at the spouse while dreaming had the best chance of successfully coping with divorce.
“If their dreams were bland,” points out Dr. Cartwright, chairman of the psychology department at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, “they hadn’t started to work through their emotions and deal with the divorced.”
Men and women differ genetically – and even when it comes to dreaming. “It’s biology and social conditioning,” explains the director of Bethesda Oak Hospital’s Sleep Center in Cincinnati, Ohio of the difference.
In a study of 1,000 dreams, half from each sex, Robert Van de Castle, author of Our Dreaming Mind, found that men more often have action-oriented dreams involving strangers, identified mostly by their occupation. Usually, these dreams are set outdoors or in unfamiliar surroundings. Think of those movies starring Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, or Roger Moore.
Women, on the other hand, dream more of one-on-one emotional struggles with loved ones (husband or children), usually in indoor settings. Shades of motion pictures that feature Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, or Julia Roberts.
Unknowingly, dreams affect our attitudes. Studies by University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus Aaron Beck show that angry people act out their anger in their dreams. Other research shows that depressed people sometimes dream they’re victims of rejection, humiliation, or abandonment. People with “thin boundaries” – unusual openness, vulnerability, difficulty standing up for themselves – are likely to suffer from nightmares.
Creative people often harness their dreams to solve problems. According to author Epel, when some writers, artists, or scientists go to sleep, they ask their subconscious for a dream that will help them with unresolved issues. “Your unconscious knows things your conscious doesn’t,” Epel says. “It can be an ally with new insights.”
For years, German chemist Fredrich A. Kekule had tried unsuccessfully to find the molecular structure of benzene. One night, in 1865, he fell asleep in front of the fireplace and dreamed of atoms swirling in long chains. In his dream, “everything was moving in a snake-like and twisting manner. Suddenly, what was this? One of the snakes got hold of its own tail and the whole structure was mockingly twisting in front of my eyes. As if struck by lightning, I awoke… “
As a result of this vision, Kekule realized that the structure of benzene is a closed carbon ring, a discovery that revolutionized modern chemistry. Announcing his breakthrough at a scientific convention in 1890, Kekule told his colleagues, “Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth.”
Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson had a rich and complicated dream life, full of nightmares and inspirations. He read entire imaginary books in his sleep and traveled to distant places, but most importantly, he received visits from his “little people.” They dictated stories to him, “piece by piece, like a serial,” especially when he needed money.
Sometimes, he dreamed stories without their help. According to his wife, Fanny, “In the small hours of one morning, I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily, ‘Why did you wake me?’ I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.’” The bogey tale was to become a classic, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which has been the basis of several movies).
Can our dreams foretell the future? In some instances, they can! In the weeks prior to his assassination, Abraham Lincoln reportedly dreamed he heard people sobbing and wandered downstairs to find out what was going on. In the East Room, he saw a coffin and a corpse whose face was covered.
“Who is dead in the White House?” Lincoln asked a soldier standing nearby. “The President,” the soldier answered. “He was killed by an assassin.”
Denson Franklin declared: “When you let your dreams die, something dies within you.”